Staking students' learning on the spin of a wheel

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Study hopes to prove benefits of chance and risk in education

Tapping into students' inner gamblers by adding an element of chance to lessons could significantly boost learning and help to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, a study is aiming to show.

Researchers will test whether the same physiological responses that attract people to gambling can be used to engage students in the classroom.

The project is part of a wider research programme to understand how neuroscience can improve education, and will try to evaluate Year 8 science students' responses to games-based rewards. Academics are currently recruiting 81 schools and 12,150 students to take part in the study, which will run until the end of 2017.

Pupils will be grouped into competitive teams and awarded points for questions they answer correctly. They will then be offered a "double or nothing" chance to gain more points, by spinning a "wheel of fortune" and answering another question at the risk of losing everything.

Dr Paul Howard-Jones, reader in neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, who is leading the study, said research had already shown that offering uncertain rewards stimulated the brain. He is now keen to see if a similar approach can be used in education.

"It is thought we evolved that way because it encourages us towards tasks that are more uncertain," Dr Howard-Jones said. "If we are totally confident of what is going to happen we are less interested, but if the odds are 50-50 then we tend to be more interested in taking part. It is something that has been exploited by casinos for years."

Students taking part in the randomised controlled trial will be assigned to one of three groups. In the control group, they will be taught in the usual way. The second group will be taught using a test-based approach, where students are given fixed rewards for answering questions. The last group will be taught with a games-based method, where students are offered uncertain rewards for getting the right answer.

The students in the last group will interact with an online platform called Zondle, controlled by the teacher. This technology will randomly select teams for special challenges and occasionally pay out points based purely on luck.

"Classroom engagement is a very strong predictor of academic success, particularly in sectors of society that are disadvantaged," Dr Howard-Jones said. "Children from low socio-economic backgrounds can have lower executive functions than those from wealthier backgrounds, even by the age of 5. But the brain's reward function isn't affected by poverty, meaning it is a good way of improving learning for everyone."

Carl Hendrick, head of learning and research at Wellington College in Berkshire, welcomed the study but warned that it could send out the message that hard work was not its own reward.

"There is also the implied assertion that kids need to be entertained all the time, or that somehow this generation is wired differently from previous ones and can only learn through gaming or technology. This is perhaps the biggest myth of all," he added.

Dr Howard-Jones' research follows a separate study in 2013 by academics at Nottingham Trent University, which warned that online gaming and the anticipation of being rewarded could lead to more young people becoming hooked on gambling.

Images of the brain show that dopamine levels rise in anticipation of an uncertain reward, and that the amount of dopamine released can predict a person's memory for facts.

Dr Howard-Jones said it was hoped that the school trials would dispel myths about what people knew about the brain and "better support teaching".

The project is one of six trials being funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation to see how neuroscience can improve education.

Dr Hilary Leevers, head of education and learning at the Wellcome Trust, said that research had "only scratched the surface" of the potential applications of neuroscience in education.

"This study applies our understanding of the brain's reward system to a typical classroom computer game," Dr Leevers added. "Often what we learn from neuroscience explains why normal classroom practice is effective, but this study will test an approach that deviates from what teachers would normally be doing. The research will test whether or not giving pupils unpredictable levels of reward to correct answers boosts their learning."

The trial will run until December 2017 and the results will be published in 2018. To take part in the project email or

Brains under strain

Carl Hendrick, head of learning and research at Wellington College, says more research into neuroscience and education is vital to counter "neuromyths".

In a study in 2012, teachers were presented with several "myths" and asked if they were true or not. "The findings illustrated an alarming level of misconception about how the brain works," Mr Hendrick says.

"For example, 93 per cent of teachers felt that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, and 91 per cent felt that differences in hemispheric dominance (left brain, right brain) can help explain individual differences among learners. Both these assertions have been debunked by neuroscience."


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today